The invisible church

May 20, 2022 by Isaac Six in Advocacy

I saw a video recently that’s stuck with me. Walking around Moscow, a young Christian woman points to a prominent metro station: “There used to be a church here; the Soviets destroyed it.” Next, a concert hall: “There used to be a church here as well; the Soviets destroyed it.” She then holds up a photo of herself as a toddler, from 1989, and in the background of her grandmother’s small apartment, a clear symbol of their faith hangs on the wall. “Despite all of this, people were still believing … My mom and brother were secretly baptized. Religion didn’t disappear, it just went into hiding.”

This video, which I saw on a prominent social media platform, is a stark reminder that when Open Doors meets with members of Congress, the State Department, and other decision makers in Washington, we’re often discussing cases where public physical expressions of Christianity are either greatly reduced or nonexistent.

In Saudi Arabia, church structures are entirely illegal. The ruins of a 1,700-year-old church are one of the only reminders that Christianity was once practiced in the Arabian Peninsula. In China, a broad campaign removed the crosses and other public symbols of Christianity from 1,200 churches in just a few months, citing “safety and beauty” reasons. In North Korea, a fake church in the capital is filled with “worshipers” whenever foreign visitors come to visit. In reality, attempting to hold a religious gathering in North Korea could lead to life imprisonment.

This is why we’re determined to make sure leaders in the United States don’t forget the persecuted— especially when they meet with other leaders around the world. In fact, an important part of advocacy goes beyond telling the story of the persecuted to preparing policymakers with the information they’ll need to advance religious freedom during high-level discussions, sometimes with those who are directly instigating persecution.

For example, several years ago the religious police in Saudi Arabia raided and arrested over a dozen members of an underground church composed of migrant works from Ethiopia. Members of Congress, alerted by advocates, quickly asked to meet with the Saudi Arabian government in Washington so the Saudi government could explain the arrests. The explanations turned out to be all over the place, from supposed drug trafficking to visa issues to petty crime. Prepared in advance, congressional staff pointed out that the arrest happened during a worship service, that the police explicitly told the members they were being arrested for holding the service, and that under international agreements protecting basic rights, the members should be released. After several months of negotiations, the Christians were released, and the Saudi Arabian government eventually began to curtail the excesses of their religious police force.

The Church we serve may often be invisible to the naked eye, but it exists in the hearts and lives of those who follow Jesus. As advocates, we can make sure the invisible remains visible— especially to those in positions of influence willing to stand up for the persecuted.

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